In the 1830’s, Buffalo Mayor Samuel Wilkeson coordinated the erection of the stone “break-wall,” just off the mouth of Buffalo Creek, to form the Buffalo harbor area. The limestone cap-rock barriers kept the November storms and winter ice from crushing the fragile wooden ships in the harbor. It was the beginnings of a prosperous, modern Buffalo.
During the 1840’s, the “famine Irish” hit Buffalo’s shores like a beggared tsunami. Many arrived here with only the shirts on their backs. They had not even the wherewithal to settle in the slums and tenements, for those facilities cost money, which they had none. In desperation, many chose bits of barren land, sand and scrub-grass, in the lee of Buffalo’s new seawall, as a place to lay their heads Today, we call this area “Times Beach.” They built miserable shanties to keep the elements from themselves. One can only imagine struggling to survive there, during the harsh months of Buffalo’s winter.
The Erie Canal, the railroads and Lake Erie freightage poured industry and commerce into the area during the 1800’s. The new Immigrants worked on the ships and new grain elevators as “scoopers,” unloaders of grain from the many boats from the vast interior of America. My grandfather, Emmanuel Martin was one of them.
By the late 1800’s, along what we now know as “Times Beach,” the mean huts had been replaced with grand shacks that the residents were proud of. Some tenants even prospered enough to add a bit of paint to the trim of their house. The Irish, ever mindful of those trying to act above their station, sardonically referred to these huts with paint on them as “Mansions.”
The Gaelic American Rowing Club served as a central community center for the settled-in Irish. There were rascals among them, including an infamous pirate ship, captured by the lads and used to raid small communities on the Canadian shore. But, most of the “Beachers” were now becoming immersed in their new society, earning a living.
The fourth generation of them was living there, during the period just before the First World War. The City of Buffalo, in its wisdom, allowed Rail Road Crews to send in gangs of workers to tear down the grand shacks, of the Irish settlers, and evict them from their homes. The railroads and local industry needed the land for rail access to the harbor area. It was a sad commentary on the fate of an American Irish community, that had no real political influence to avert such calamities. That would change in the decades to come. The City of Buffalo, perhaps fearing lawsuits for “adverse possession” paid up to $2,000 per lot to the evicted Irish, a princely sum in 1917.
“The Beacher’s,” as they were then called, didn’t like being evicted, but they moved into houses in Buffalo, along Louisiana and Fulton streets, to join the other members of Buffalo’s Clan Na Gael, who had already settled there. It is from this point on that the “Beacher’s,” and their colorful history, slipped into the mists of fading memories of the “old ones” among us. They were mentioned not often, usually after a few beers at a tavern or family picnic. But it is here, in the waterfront area that we now call “Times Beach,” that many of Buffalo’s Clan Na Gael got our start in America. Three lines of my own family, the Carneys, Martins and Tevingtons, all hail from these humble beginnings. We honor them all for their tenacity and courage.
Joseph Xavier Martin